Friday, 30 October 2009


Autumn has well and truly arrived here in Japan. I wake up in the mornings with a cold nose, the morning air is crisp and the leaves are turning beautiful shades of golden and red. My students have been telling me lots about the turning of the leaves so I thought it fitting to take a trip to Kyoto to see the Autumn leaves in all their splendour. This trip to Kyoto will be the first time that I have travelled alone in Japan. I am looking forward to it; I have a list full of temples, shrines, galleries and arty cafesthat I plan on visiting. I can wander, amble and root where I want and as I wish, it will be liberating!

My students have been helping me to plan my trip. They took their school trip to Kyoto and have been giving me lots of recommendations. Some useful:

"Dear Isabel. When you go to the Kyoto, please be careful. In front of the Kyoto station, there is sometimes a man who is disguised as a woman. Sometimes he appears there. Please be careful."

Some not so useful:

"Dear Isabel, please go to Kiyomizudera. There you can have pictures with womans. I love womans. I love you."

"Dear Isabel. Let's go the Kyoto hot spring together. It will make our skin smooth to the touch"

Some brimming with enthusiasm:

"Isabel, LET'S GO TO THE KYOTO! You can enjoy the Kyoto!"

This evening, I went to my welcome party. It was the best meal I have ever had in my life at a traditional Japanese restaurant in the town across from Marugame. The evening consisted of dish after dish of perfectly crafted delights. Every dish was a work of art, truly. The colours were incredible and never again will I call Japanese food bland. Every flavour was so perfect. My favourite things were the mushroom and chestnut soup and the seabass and sumomo (Japanese plum) dish. Some were so beautiful that I had to be reminded to eat them; first by a gentle nudge from Ohmiya-sensei, which ended up as hearty whacks on the back as he became more intoxicated.

My teachers made some speeches, as is always the way at Japanese parties and said some lovely things about me. There is one class I visit every couple of weeks and I have always wondered what the tally chart on the right hand side of the black board is for. Naoi sensei told me that this is a tally chart that the boy students in 3-6 keep to count down how many days it is until my next visit. It nearly made me cry... again! Ono, Fijii and Manami, my favourite students are in 3-6 so it's always my favourite class to visit. When I go there, it feels like I am visiting friends more than students. My teachers also bought me some beautiful flowers, I love my teachers at Maruko so much.

Here is a picture of me and my happy family. Ohmiya-sensei is the little man to my right.


Monday, 19 October 2009


If I could describe today, October 19th 2009, the one word I would choose would be 'phone'. It has been a long long day. Though my head is full of words,my eyelids feel heavy and I am looking forward to drifting to sleep tonight.

Today started with a missed alarm. When my Japanese phone runs out of battery, it won't sound a previously set alarm. This happened last night and this morning, I woke up at the horribly late time of 8.00am....I have to be at school for 8.15am. I arrived at school with some hastily applied mascara and the biggest bed head hair known to the Japanese population. The first thing Ohmiya-sensei said to me when I reached school was 'Oh Isabel, you look very different today' ha!

After school, I went to my ukulele class in a small town just outside Takamatsu city. I have to take a bus along a big highway, which drops me off at a shopping mall. From there, it is a very long walk to the school. It was dark and cold tonight so I decided to jump in a taxi. My ukulele class was lovely; there are eight Japanese people, myself and the teacher Jeremy, who is from Hawaii.Jeremy has lived in Japan for a long time and as everybody in the class apart from me is Japanese, he speaks in Japanese for the whole class. I can pick out some words, but for the most part, the Japanese washes over me. It is nice however to be constantly hearing it and tonight I learnt the Japanese words for 'chord', 'strum' and 'chorus' We played sweet ukulele music and some people sang - it was so cute :-)

When the class had ended and I was fishing around in my bag for my phone, I could not find it. I had left it in the taxi. Disaster. I got that dreaded knot of fear in my stomach. Apples are expensive here, I felt nauseous at the thought of how much a lost phone would cost to replace. By this point, Jeremy had left and I was in the company of two ladies, both of whom had very little English. I managed to tell them what had happened. They were so sweet and kind, called up the taxi company and within minutes, my phone was returned to me. I have never felt such relief and also amazement at how super efficient the 'getting phone back' operation turned out to be. The two ladies then drove me all the way back to the station so that I could catch my train back to Marugame. We could barely understand eachother, yet they showed such genuine kindness that I cried in the car (surprise surprise, I seem to be even more sentimental than usual since moving to Japan). They kept laughing and saying 'ahh, soft heart lady, soft heart lady!' I love made up Japanese English. When one learns a language, or has very little knowledge of a language, it is difficult/impossible to use linguistic subtlety. As a result, I think that things are said with a simplicity and honesty that I find to be very beautiful.

* MORE SCATTERBRAINED MISHAPS* 1. Once on the train, I realised that in my lost phone panic, I had left my Japanese study books and diary at the ukulele class. I shall think about this tomorrow...

2. Back at my apartment, I was making some tea and smelt an awful burning smell....the teatowel had caught fire. Gah, I need to go to bed!

I had a proper conversation with two of my boy students at school today.
Ono and Fujii are third graders so they are eighteen years old. The last time I saw them was at a lesson in which we talked about our favourite songs. I played an Arcade Fire song. Arcade Fire are Ono's favourite band and I could see his face light up when I played the cd. I love that music is such a universal language.I experienced that both in my ukulele class and with Ono. We sat with our iPods for ages, telling eachother about different bands. On Friday, we are going to swap mix cds :-) Fujii hopes to go to Kobe University to study English and Chinese. He told me about Tor Road in Kobe. It's an area full of delicious bakeries and shops full of handmade treasures. I am going to go back to Kobe as soon as I can. Although at times, it is difficult to teach older kids, (they are not so fickle,and a handful think that they are too cool, so it takes some time to gain their trust and respect.) one of the things I do like is that I am so close in age to the third graders that it is possible to make friendships with them. I have a little book (well, I did before I left it at the ukulele class) full of recommendations from my students; good shops to go to in Takamatsu, bands to listen to, books and magazines to read. I really like going to school at Maruko.

I'm not sure what my plans for this weekend are, but the Autumnal hibernation that my camera is curently enjoying, deep in the depths of my bag, will come to an end as I take some pictures. It has been a while.

Oyasumi nasai.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009


Last week, whilst almost spitting the entire contents of his bento box over me, Ohmiya-sensei told me to take a look at the work of a Japanese artist called Akira Yamaguchi. He said he had a feeling that I would like it or rather, "I think you can enjoy it". This phrase, along with 'Let's/Please enjoy it" has become one of my favourite Japanese English phrases. My students say it all the time; I like its simplicity and I feel happy when someone says it.

Akira Yamaguchi is an artist who appropriates the style of old Japanese paintings and infuses them with modern inflections, in a very humorous and often ironic way. For example, he will paint a picture of a man grooming a horse that has motorcycle wheels instead of legs. I like his paintings of Edo style villages in which he uses the Katakana alphabet (this is the Japanese alphabet used for Western or borrowed terms) instead of the Kanji alphabet. I think you can enjoy Akira Yamaguchi's work!

Last weekend, I crossed the Seto Ohashi bridge to visit my friends in Okayama city. Ahh, Okayama is amazing; I had such a happy time there.I went to a really beautiful little cafe for lunch before heading to Okayama Castle. Okayama Castle is often nicknamed 'the crow'... for its dark and ominous appearance.

It seems that Saturday was my lucky day as right next to the castle, there was a small petting pen full of rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks and chicks. This made my weekend, really and truly.
I really wish I had a pet here. There is a cat for sale here in Marugame. He is a beautiful tabby cat called Tomoko and has been sitting in a basket, adorned with flowers and streamers down at the shopping arcade for the past couple of days. I want him.

Autumn is arriving in Japan. It is such a welcome change from the Japanese summer time (the hottest temperatures I have ever had to endure, and I only caught the tail end of it). I love the hazy sunshine and the crisp, gentle breeze. I think that Japanese parks and gardens are best enjoyed in the Autumn. Korakuen Park is supposedly one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in this country. At the park, we met a lady called Keiko and her friend. Keiko was the most infectiously happy person you could meet, I'm going to write to her :-)

On Saturday evening, I met up with some more of my friends from training. It was so great to see them.

On Sunday morning, after a lovely breakfast, I took a trip to Kurashiki. Kurashiki is a small city beside Okayama city. It's name can roughly be translated as 'town of storehouses' which refers to Kurashiki's important role as a rice distribution center back in the Edo period. These pictures don't really capture the beauty of Kurashiki due to my incompetency with cameras - forgive me!

Kurashiki was so beautiful; the canal area was lined with interesting shops and restaurants. It made me long for a girl friend; I felt bad dragging the boys into wooden toy shops and the like. I hope to visit again soon, especially after Taoka-sensei told me yesterday that there is a famous tofu restaurant in Kurashiki in which they even make their desserts from tofu, eee!

I felt flat and upset on the train home from Okayama on Sunday evening. I miss city life so much, more than I had ever imagined I would. I spoiled what could have been a really lovely conversation with my Mum (I'm sorry) and went to bed in a foul mood. When I returned back to school on Monday however, my mood lifted. When I am at school, I don't think of Marugame in an aesthetic context. It is impossible to think badly or negatively of Marugame when I work with some of its nicest, sweetest and thoughtful inhabitants. My colleagues and students at Maruko are the best I could ever ask for.

On Monday, I got some post in the in house post box; one girl had written me two copies of the same letter - one copy in English and one copy in Japanese so that I could use it to study from. Another girl made me a coconut cake, and I spent time after school talking with some of my other students. My colleagues are just as thoughtful. I told Ohmiya sensei that I was thinking of visiting my friend Rachel next weekend in Kasaoka (over on the mainland). Before I had even finished the sentence, he ran (or rather stomped) off to get various ferry, train and bus timetables and even suggested driving me there. In a couple of Fridays time, I am attending a Welcome Party that my colleagues have organised for me. They made invitations for it in purple, my favourite colour.

Marugame isn't the experience I was expecting, which gives me an even greater curiosity to explore parts of Japan in which I can find inspiration. Perhaps a blessing in disguise? When I think of the kindness that people have shown towards me however; from little gifts to much needed motherly like text messages from my colleagues, it makes me feel that I have perhaps been placed here for a reason. It is very comforting to know that even though I am very far away from home, and essentially alone here, there are people close by who are always looking out for me. That is a wonderful thing.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

"I will protect from 'tayfoon' for Isabel"

It seems that my nonchalant attitude to the typhoon season tempted fate....last night,Japan experienced a strong typhoon. School finished early yesterday afternoon and everybody was under strict instruction to go straight home, and stay inside until the typhoon had passed. After hearing that I was worried about the typhoon, a really kind hearted student came to the teachers room and said "I will protect from 'tayfoon' for Isabel". What a sweetie.

I took the typhoon warning very seriously (I am from mild British climes and did not know what to expect!) and promptly cycled to the supermarket to stock up on food before whizzing straight home to the safety of my apartment.
Whilst cycling down Route 11 (the highway that leads from school to the supermarket)however, I saw a sizeable population of Marugame Josei Senior High School students looking carefree and happy in the games arcade. A precious and temporary release from the clasps of the Japanese education system, why go home!

The typhoon came and went without causing any damage in Marugame. I woke this morning to an incredibly still day outside. The sun was hazy and it felt strangely tranquil as I cycled to school. The only signs of the typhoon were the five enormous frogs I saw enjoying the puddles. I have an irrational fear of frogs. They make my skin crawl. Japanese frogs are monstrous! I had to prepare myself and close my eyes each time I cycled past one...I was seen doing this by several of my students, who found the sight of a tall western girl in a floral rain coat, squealing as she rode past frogs, hilarious.

The deputy headmaster at Josei high school is very friendly and each time I come to school, he is always interested to know about what I've been doing at the weekend. I hadn't seen him for a while so told him about my trip to Naoshima. Apparently there is a Bond 007 museum on Naoshima...he then told me that I looked as beautiful as a Bond Girl. It made me laugh, what a tenuous conversational link! Come to work in Japanese high schools if you want an ego boost!

Last weekend, I felt a little homesick. All is well now after doing three things.

1. On Tuesday, I didn't have to go to school so I downloaded some new music for my ears, hopped on my bike and cycled for hours,finally stopping to rest in a little cafe. Recently, I think I have been experiencing stage two of culture shock: hostility. I have been getting very upset and frustrated that I am unable to sit in a cafe or go to the supermarket without a thousand eyes being on me (and the contents of my basket or plate). This time, I decided I would stay in the cafe and what is more, try to communicate with the starers. It worked! Two very old ladies ended up squeezing in beside me, twittering away to me in Japanese. They kept on asking me to stand up so that they could see how tall I was. They bought me a green tea cake. It felt so nice to be acknowledged in a positive way.

2. That very same day, I decided to take a visit to the pet shop. It made me feel so much better. Animals are the same the world over: I could make the same cooing sounds as I do to Alfie and Josie back home and their Japanese counterparts would respond in just the same way. It was very comforting to know that some things are the same here.

3. This evening, I went to get my hair cut. I had attempted to get it cut last night. I shall tell you the reason for hair cut postponement; I popped into a very inconspicious but cosy looking hair dresser's just by school. There was only one hairdresser in there and no customers. I told her (in good Japanese, as I had been told exactly what to say by my colleague Suzuki-sensei) what I would like done. Despite the shop being empty,she told me that she was busy. I think she felt nervous about cutting a foreigner's hair/spending time alone with a foreigner....I was a little hurt by this response but tried again today. This time, at an amazing hair dresser's - this is where the young creatives in Marugame dwell! I have found them, finally! My hair dresser was so beautiful and looked like she had come straight from the arty neighbourhoods of one of the more cosmopolitan Japanese cities. It made me forget all about yesterday's disastrous trip. She rushed to the pile full of artfully arranged magazines and plucked the one from the top, pointed to it, then back to me, whilst nodding her head excitedly. I gather that she thought I looked like Nicole Richie....somehow I think our only resemblance lies in our disparity from the entire female population of Japan; we don't have dark hair.

I also had an experience, similar to the one I had in the pet shop. The beautiful hairdresser asked me all of the usual questions one is asked in a hairdresser's; 'Have you got any plans for the weekend?' 'Have you got a boyfriend?' and all the small talk that accompanies. Hairdressers are a universal phenomenon too.... :-)


Friday, 2 October 2009

Hello October

October has arrived and has brought with it the rain and a gusty wind. News has it that a typhoon is heading to South East Asia. Shikoku is situated in a cosy little spot down south, protected by the main island of Honshu and the calm Inland Sea. Apart from a few more bicycle falls as more people than usual haphazardly attempt to cycle with one hand whilst holding an umbrella in the other, Shikoku folk will be safe.

Last weekend was spent in Takamatsu visiting another British girl here, Gemma. Naoshima is an island in the Inland Sea which can be reached by ferry from Takamatsu. Naoshima is truly a treasure. It is an island devoted entirely to creativity. The island has many contemporary art galleries, and sculptures and installations are dotted all over the place. I didn't get to see all of the things that I wanted to see so I plan to go back. It was so beautiful and so inspiring.

A private beach for use by Naoshima hotel guests only....Gemma and I sneaked onto the beach. Getting back however proved to be difficult as the path back to the road was lined with the biggest crickets I have ever seen. There was a lot of screaming.

You can take a bus to all of the art galleries. I love Japanese transport design so much - it is so endearingly cute.

This pumpkin sculpture is a piece by Yayoi Kusama. I was utterly taken by her work and I have been reading about her a lot this week. Yayoi Kusama is an intriguing character and I think her art is incredible. She makes 'infinity rooms'; mirrored rooms filled with hanging coloured lights and polka dot shapes. I find them simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Kusama loves to wear different coloured wigs, oversized polka dot caftans and bright lipstick. I wish I had gone to see her work at the Walking Around In My Mind exhibition at the Southbank Centre back in the summer time.

On Sunday,Gemma and I continued on our quest for aesthetic satisfaction by visiting a Designers Flea Market down town. It was so beautiful and made me think of my market wanderings back home.

There have been some amusing incidents that have taken place at Maruko over the past few days. Speech contests are a really important part of school life here in Japan. Speech contests involve students memorising both famous speeches by iconic figures in history and self penned speeches. Speech contests take the form of a heat process; if a student wins the city heats,he/she will go on to the prefectural heats and from there, onto the national final. I was asked to help two students at Maruko for the prefectural contest next week.

One girl had written a speech about her father who works as a fisherman. It was a well written speech and she delivered it with such sincerity that I think she could score very highly. There is one problem...she has difficulty with the pronunciation of the word 'hook'. Her pronunciation of the word 'hook' sounds very like the word 'f**k'. Yesterday, whilst standing in front of me, with a beam on her face as she spoke about her beloved father, she uttered the dreaded sentence, the sentence I knew could end my position as a speech contest coach; 'Sometimes, my father 'f***ks' big fish'. I wanted to leave the room more than anything, I was trying so hard to quell my laughter, but I could feel an enormous laugh deep in the pit of my stomach, waiting to unleash itself. I managed to turn it into a pathetic sounding cough, then turned to my right where I saw Ohmiya-sensei guffawing, quite openly in front of the bewildered looking student.

Ohmiya-sensei is still retaining his spot as my favourite teacher. He is a particularly hearty eater and at lunch time, I can hear him express his appreciation for the contents of his bento box, each and every content, loudly and clearly. He takes a bite, chews, swallows and ends with a 'haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' sort of contented hiss and a little chuckle. Williams-sensei hates when he does this and yesterday, turned around very abruptly, narrowed her eyes at him and told him ' I hate it when you do that. Please stop. You are ruining my lunch' Ha. Ohmiya-sensei loves food and next week, I am teaching a lesson entitled 'Dream Recipe' in which the students will have to use the new vocabulary I will teach them, to make up their dream recipe. I found some strange British recipes like bacon and egg icecream and deep fried chocolate bar. These pictures are intended to both disgust and inspire the students to create something equally as bizarre. Ohmiya-sensei on the other hand, asked me for the recipe for both...

I have to visit so many classes, so end up seeing each class only once a month. Lots of students have given me their e-mail addresses so that we can talk more but my contract states that I cannot contact the students outside of school hours. I love letters so much. Unlike an e-mail which can be rehashed and rewritten, a letter achieves permenancy straight away. I like seeing people's thoughts written in their own hand,I like seeing the crossings out and last minute addings of words, squeezed into the last available space. It is such a personal thing. I therefore suggested to the teachers that we set up an inhouse postal service whereby, the students can write me letters with questions and news and I can reply back to them. The teachers were really taken with this idea, especially Ohmiya-sensei who began yelling at the top of his voice 'mustu maku pooostuu boxxuuu' as he ran down the corridoor to the art room (unaware and probably unconcerned as to whether or not there was a class already taking place in the art room).

That reminds me; one thing that makes me laugh about life here is that Japanese people do a lot of running. When I go to the convenience store, the shop assistant will run from stacking shelves to the cash register. When I go to the post office to pick up parcels, the post sorter will sprint to the cubby hole to retrieve my post. At school, teachers run from one class to the next. I have even found myself breaking into an enthused run as I finish a lesson and head back to the teachers room. I like it.

This week, I have started reading about things to show my family when they come and visit me. I have never been so excited in my life; I can't wait to see my family <3 I took a slight diversion from researching ornate temples and shrines after I stumbled across this cafe in the Kansai Times. Neko no Jikan (Time for Cats) is a cafe in Osaka at which live eighteen cats. At this cafe, you can pay 1000 yen (about 6 pounds) for a coffee, cake and an hour of cat time. I miss my Alfie so much, I think a trip to Neko no Jikan will make me feel better!